- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

BULWER LYTTON: THE RISE AND FALL OF A VICTORIAN MAN OF LETTERS

By Leslie Mitchell

Hambledon & London, $34.95, 292 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

The “rise and fall” alluded to in the subtitle of “Bulwer Lytton: The Rise and Fall of a Victorian Man of Letters,” is somewhat misleading in that throughout his career, Bulwer Lytton was a conspicuous success as a writer. Highly esteemed by such writers as Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Dickens, he was immensely popular with the reading public and turned out a stream of bestselling novels which made him a considerable fortune.

There were political fictions, novels of scandal, science fiction, Newgate novels about criminal life, and works of historical fiction, most notably his magnum opus, “The Last Days of Pompeii.” The “fall” which Oxford don Leslie Mitchell has put in his title took place almost half a century after Lytton’s death in 1873, when, after selling robustly following his death, his sales (along with so much else) perished in World War I:

“At Lytton’s funeral in Westminster Abbey, Benjamin Jowett heralded him as ‘one of England’s greatest writers and one of the most distinguished men of our time’. One hundred and thirty years later, Lytton and his work is [sic] largely unknown. Up to 1914, the sales of his books rivaled those of Dickens. Since 1918, few people have shown any interest. Rarely can a reputation have stood so high and fallen so low… . His rehabilitation as an undoubtedly eminent Victorian is long overdue. It is the aim of this book to contribute to that process.”

Anyone who has tried to read one of Bulwer Lytton’s works will probably not have to do too much speculating as to why this happened. The strange thing is that it took a global Armageddon to accomplish what even the most tentative stirrings of Modernism in the early years of the 20th century should have been able to bring about.

As that century wore on, it is true that many readers found the stylistic ethos of Victorian literature ever harder to take. But where a writer had something really special to offer, modern readers were prepared to put up with a considerable amount in order to be, say, enthralled by Dickens’ power or amused by Trollope’s wicked sense of fun. They could even put up with Thackeray’s garrulousness for the sake of his marvelous stories or Samuel Butler’s stolidity in order to penetrate the facades of Victorian society. But, really, Bulwer Lytton is too much to bear, far worse even than Disraeli, whose brilliant insights and great wit in his now largely unread novels are kept from us by the impenetrable edifice of his prose style.

What Matthew Arnold said about Lytton’s Gothicized stately home Knebworth, with its tangle of gargoyles, turrets, and panelling, might fairly be applied to his prose as well: “A strange mixture of what is really romantic and interesting with what is tawdry and gimcracky.” Long-winded, turgid, ornate — even baroque — his style is like those irredeemably ugly buildings that the Victorian age inflicted upon posterity.

Think of St. Pancras Station in London, only add to it a complex garland of gingerbread ornamentations. It is a truly awful combination in a writer that such turgidity of style is allied with such trashiness of subject matter. Some writers do speak to their age only; the change in sensibility from then to now is fatal if there isn’t something really compelling to draw the modern reader in.

One has to admit that Mr. Mitchell tries hard to make a case for his man:

“For sheer range of style and interest therefore Lytton was a giant of Victorian literature. His readers could be assured that he would give them something of interest on a matter of contemporary concern. His last service to them was to offer a view of the future… . His books still make claims on our attention… .The hopes and anxieties of an age are better understood by a reading of Lytton… . More importantly still, many of the novels have a literary merit which has been smothered in the general proscription. If not quite of the caliber of Dickens or George Eliot, Lytton is yet a powerful story-teller with the ability to shock and move… . Such a re-evaluation is long overdue.”

Yet I should be surprised if Lytton’s biographer will succeed in making many converts with this book. Perhaps it was a deliberate decision to write in a manner that seems to ape Lytton’s orotund phrases, but rather than lead the reader in towards an appreciation of such style, it simply makes this biography almost as impenetrable as those now-unread volumes of Bulwer Lytton’s novels. Nor does Mr. Mitchell bring much psychological insight to his biography. Lytton was a fascinating and complex figure, more calculated, it is true, to appall, rather than appeal to, the reader, but a more sophisticated and astute biographer might have been able to do a better job of getting under his skin.

It is undoubtedly true, as Mr. Mitchell says, that Bulwer’s love-hate relationship with his mother was the cause of his famously and protractedly disastrous marriage to Rosina Wheeler, but we need more than this insight, more exploration, more depth, perhaps even more speculation, than we get here. As it is, the book is a blur of unilluminated relationships with brothers, mistresses, colleagues and children — legitimate (two) and illegitimate (countless).

Having admitted that his biography would present the man rather than the artist, it is not surprising that Mr. Mitchell is better at recounting Lytton’s political career than he is at making a case for his literary virtues. A fascinating sidelight to Lytton was that he was in the running to become of King of Greece in 1863, although in the event a Danish prince was chosen. But the pinnacle of his political achievement in England was serving as Secretary of State for the Colonies in Lord Derby’s government, later being created a Baron.

Even though he did not achieve the eminence that his son did in being one of the great Viceroys of India, which raised the family peerage to an Earldom, Lytton did sit in Parliament for many decades. He may not have been in the Cabinet very long, but his tenure was not without distinction and his views on Colonialism are quite creditable, as Mr. Mitchell shows us:

“It was no coincidence that, within months of taking office, Lytton had asked for a balance sheet to be drawn up on all existing colonies. Profit and loss, moral, financial, and strategic, would be set out. It would for example answer the question, ‘What does the Gold Coast really cost us?’ Lytton was no unthinking patriot on imperial matters. His approach was half that of the accountant, half that of the moral philosopher.”

Mr. Mitchell is astute in his judgments on Lytton’s politics and in particular his evolution from Radical reformer to Tory. It is unfortunate that the literary judgments are not on a par with the political ones, for the opinion of a fellow parliamentarian on Lytton’s oratory might fairly be applied to his prose style as an author:

“A Liberal opponent admitted that he could at times be ‘very brilliant’ but that this was unusual. More often his parliamentary appearances were unfortunate:

“‘Bulwer Lytton made a stilted, pompous, seriocomic and prolix reply. He has everything to learn in the art of answering questions in Parliament. Disraeli’s face it was painful to behold. Lord Stanley smiled, but smiled as though it was no smiling matter… .The real wit of Bulwer Lytton certainly failed to redeem a manner unpardonable in a Secretary of State.’

“It was perhaps not surprising that an individualist like Lytton, thin-skinned and self-referential, should never have found the right idiom for persuading and accommodating other men. Here was a basic art of the politician that was never in his repertoire.”

This biography seems long while one is reading it, yet seems scrappy when one has reached its conclusion still uninformed about so much of Lytton’s life, unenlightened about so much of his personality, and certainly unconvinced of the need to restore his work to the canon. Despite Mr. Mitchell’s best efforts, to me Lytton remains the man who imposed his conventional taste upon his far greater colleague Charles Dickens with the result that “Great Expectations” came down to us without the more artistic and realistic ending originally envisaged by the genius of its author. Sometimes posterity is correct in its verdict; in Lytton’s case it simply took half a century to come round to it.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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